13th April 2007
My Easter travels have taken me from the peat and gritstone of the High Peak, through the clay and chalk of Sussex to sand and wood in south-west France. I have arrived in the vast flatlands of Les Landes where endless vistas of green pine forests, golden dunes and blue sea define the landscape. Different sounds again wake me from my slumbers – the cuckoos echoing in the woods behind us, the trickle of the spring whose rusty residue coats the twigs and leaves which collect in its path around the house. A chainsaw cuts harshly through tree and air, a car passes in the distance, a child shouts, a weak April sun lights up the sky. It is time to get up and explore the day.
The name of the village on the outskirts of which the house stands derives from the occupation of the Celto-Iberians around 800BC. Being of Celtic origin myself, this serendipitous coincidence appeals to me. It is one of the few villages in the area which remains ‘alive’ all year rather than somewhere that only opens its shutters in the summer months. There is a small supermarket which struggles to keep going in the face of larger, cheaper competition; the obligatory boulangerie; a café-cum-restaurant; a small hotel; a school; a pretty 14th century church; a post office; a couple of dress shops; a bric-a-brac and the ubiquitous Mairie. The mayor is a typically pompous individual who, when I politely asked his name, replied unequivocably and with a gallic flush in his voice, “Monsieur le Maire, c’est tout”. OK then. Monsieur le Maire it is.
So Monsieur le Maire presides with plumped up feathers over this tiny dot in the Landes, the second largest ‘departement’ in France. He has a newsletter. He has introduced a new system for the collection of household waste, and he is building new housing for the local people at the end of our lane where once a piece of forest stood. It will change the atmosphere considerably but I know I must not complain as it all helps to keep the village alive and kicking all year round, which is the right order of things. It’s just that I don’t trust Monsieur le Maire further than I can throw him and his pistaccio green jumper…
The couple on their second marriage, six children between them, who run the café-cum-restaurant, are delightful. They’ve breathed new life into the centre of the village with their chairs and tables spilling onto the broad pavement and a very good line in home-cooked food. In Winter the moustachioed Monsieur cooks the sort of vegetable ‘potage’ which is hard to come by these days. His restaurant has become an ‘endroit’ where the locals celebrate birthdays, marriages and other significant family occasions. It is good to see.
Meanwhile, just along the road, opposite the church, the village hotel was bought last year by an elegant Madame with immaculate taste and gently advancing years. She has brought a large dollop of sophistication to this unassuming community, transforming a classic flock-wallpaper hotel into an alluring place to sit and sip an aperitif under a canopy of plane trees.
We drive past all these places on our way to the beach. We have been blessed with early Spring sunshine and the best place to soak it up is down by the Atlantic breakers. A simple lunch of croque-monsieur and salade landaise washed down by a few glasses of chilled rose is followed by playtime on the beach. We walk over soft golden dunes held together by thistle and marram and settle in the lee of the rocks that edge the river where it flows into the ocean. Two girls run off laughing with buckets and spades and grandma; the other, with enviable skill, silently makes her kite dance in the off-shore winds. With the sun warming my back and the sweet scent of pines wafting from the backdrop of forest, I feel at ease with my world and drift gently off into unfettered, post-digestive sleep…ah, the joy of holidays.